For years, Miami-Dade has delayed replacing the decades-old pipe that sent at least 1 million gallons of sewage into the Oleta River earlier this month after corrosion finally caused its exterior to rupture.
If earlier schedules had been followed, the 48-inch pipe installed in the 1960s would have been replaced years ago, according to budget documents. Instead, the $15 million project was delayed multiple times over the last 10 years, until an underwater stretch of the pipe’s surface deteriorated enough that it gave way about two weeks ago at the edge of Oleta River State Park.
On Aug. 11, a kayaker spied gurgling water under a bridge that runs by the park in northern Biscayne Bay, the first sign of the sewage leak. Miami-Dade issued no-swim advisories for a 40-block area around the rupture.
In 2009, the county’s underfunded Water and Sewer Department had scheduled the $15 million replacement of the 48-inch pipe to be finished by 2013, according to budget documents. Two years later, the deadline slid back to 2018.
That still would have had the pipe replaced before the spill. But in 2013, the deadline moved back again in the agency’s long-term budget, and administrators scheduled the job to be done by 2020.
That was the rough timetable in place when the rupture was discovered earlier this month. Miami-Dade’s Water and Sewer $853 million yearly budget for 2019 had called for design work on the project to start the following year, and actual construction in 2021. That ended up being too late.
It took a county contractor about a week to build a bypass pipe and then complete the repairs needed to halt the sewage discharge. Miami-Dade said the leak ended around midnight on Aug. 16 after discharging about a million gallons of raw sewage. Some of the no-swim advisories around Oleta and nearby beaches remained in place Friday.
The long-term delay in replacing the Oleta pipe was outlined in the county’s yearly 700-page long-term capital budget for Water and Sewer. The archived documents online show the Oleta pipe replacement, Project No. 101924, steadily moving back in time as budget writers prioritized which sewer jobs would come to the front of the line for funding and which would wait for money years later.
“This project was originally planned to start in FY2011 and be completed in 2013,” said Jennifer Messemer-Skold, a spokeswoman for Water and Sewer. She said the Oleta pipe initially got bumped for work connected to the consent-decree program, and then for a crucial overhaul of a wastewater treatment plant in South Dade. “Annually, during the budget process, the department re-evaluates project priorities to address immediate needs,” Messemer-Skold said.
Delayed repairs and replacement of Miami-Dade sewer pipes has been a problem for decades. They also became the subject of a 2012 lawsuit by the Environmental Protection Agency, the latest in a string of federal actions. The suit ended in a 2014 settlement that produced a consent decree laying out a $1.8 billion plan for Miami-Dade to upgrade pipes serving treatment plants across the county.
That work must be done by 2026. The Oleta pipe wasn’t part of that work plan, but fell under the department’s total construction and repair plan that’s valued at $7.5 billion over the next decade and beyond.
“The department, I think everybody knows, has been underfunded for quite some time,” Water and Sewer Director Kevin Lynskey said during an Aug. 16 interview on WLRN’s Florida Roundup program. He said the agency gives priority to the oldest pipes in the most sensitive areas, and repairs the riskiest ones Miami-Dade can afford in any given year. “It becomes a matter of money and statistics.”
Water and Sewer gets the bulk of its money from water bills, and Miami-Dade commissioners approve rates recommended by the mayor.
Last year, Mayor Carlos Gimenez agreed to reduce the proposed rate increase on the water portion of bills after commissioners balked at the proposed $4-a-month hike. At the time, Lynskey said when rates don’t go up as they should, “we’ve always done the same thing — and the same thing I will do — which is defer maintenance.”
This year, Gimenez’s proposed 2020 budget has water-rate increases that will generate about $30 million more for the system, a 10 percent increase on average across retail and commercial users. The wastewater rates, which fund most of the sewer projects, aren’t set to increase by much. The adjustments will generate less than $2 million more in revenue, an increase of less than 1 percent. Miami-Dade also uses some revenue borrowed against property taxes for water-and-sewer repairs.
Miami-Dade’s sewer system was cited in an Aug. 8 grand jury report on the failing health of Biscayne Bay. “Leaking, broken and busted sewer pipes have contributed to the spilling of millions of gallons of sewage directly into Biscayne Bay,” the report stated. “Significant portions of the 6,500 miles of main pipes and laterals in the [county] wastewater system are old, and in need of replacement.”
“The problem is, unless there’s some sort of crisis, the replace-and-repair work gets pushed down the road,” said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeepers, an advocacy group for clean rivers and bays in Miami-Dade. “For the many years of neglect, we’re still playing catch-up. We’re seeing that with a lot of these pipes bursting.”